But gentlemen marry brunettes

Once upon a time, long, long ago, longer than the first BB creams, or plastic surgery, longer ago than the film of How To Marry a Millionaire, longer even than the age of Flappers and their shingle bobs, when Anita Loos wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, longer than when unstoppable American heiresses married into the British and European aristocracy, longer ago than universal suffrage and universal education, at a time when the only universally accepted truth for a woman’s fate was in the marriage market, there lived two beautiful, but very poor, dark-haired sisters known as the Gunning Beauties.

They became A-list celebrities of their day, Cinderellas who escaped from genteel poverty in Ireland – so poor that they had to try earning a living on the stage – to social ascendancy in England through marriage to aristocrats – fine, if you like that sort of thing, and even if you don’t, imagine a world in which a woman’s career options were so narrow that only a wedding in a silver dress could save her from destitution or prostitution.

Like Cinderella, they didn’t have dresses for their first ball in Dublin, until a fairy-godmother, in their case the local theatre manager, supplied them with two costumes from his wardrobe department.

Unlike Cinderella, they had a living mother who had a dream for her daughters, “a wonderful dream”, to get her daughters married to princes. She had the advantage of being born on the right side of the tracks, as the daughter of an Irish peer, and had an insider’s knowledge of how to market the girls for presentation at Court. Her daughters’ beauty would get them the wealth and social position that she had been denied by an unlucky marriage.

She steered them over the water to mainland Britain where they would, in the words Sondheim wrote for another ambitious mother, “stand the world on its ear / Set it spinning..” and “have nothing to hit but the heights”….

Elizabeth Gunning Hamilton

“…the cool type of temperament who thinks two is a crowd” (Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) Portrait of Elizabeth Gunning, by Gavin Hamilton, commissioned by her first ducal husband, the Duke of Hamilton, 1752/53. Image: Wikipedia Continue reading

Foreshades of Grey (6)

or, The Royal Stag

The king’s promiscuity was an affair of state. It made government vulnerable to abuse from the wrong kind of woman pushed on him by a court faction, with domestic or foreign policy agendas, a scenario as familiar to modern republics as autocracies of any time. He was very lucky to find the rational, loyal and responsible Madame de Pompadour, or rather, that she introduced herself to him.

louis XV

Nattier, Portrait of Louis XV of France, 1745. Oil on canvas The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
He was known as the handsomest man at Versailles; he was also the most libidinous and depressed. Here, portrayed in the year he moved his new mistress Madame d’Étioles, into Versailles, he looks disconcertingly like a chubby Dan Stevens, but Ryan Gosling would be better casting to convey his enigmatic emotional isolation.

Details of his sexual proclivities, especially his liking for young girls, later provided propaganda for the Revolutionaries in his grandson’s reign. He needed but was not obsessed with sex; he spent far more time gambling and hunting, anything to distract him from l’acédie. Unlike a lot of world leaders in the modern era, and the Marquis de Sade in Louis XV’s own time, there was no open suggestion during his reign even from his greatest enemies that the king abused or assaulted women, or that his tastes were perverted or paedophiliac; but there’s no doubt that he slept with a lot of young teenage girls.

How young is still disputed; the ones history is sure about were aged about fifteen or sixteen. This was considered just old enough for aristocratic and wealthy virgins to start sexual activity in arranged marriages with often much older men, but very early by the contemporary standards of poorer, working class girls, unless they were already prostitutes. The average age of marriage among peasant or working class women in the mid 18th century was as surprisingly, and sensibly, late as 26, suggesting they had much more power of choice than their more pampered upper class counterparts, pawns in mummies and daddies’ powergames.

Madame de Pompadour was essential to the king’s happiness, and she lived to make him happy. After their relationship became platonic, neither she nor the king, let alone his wife and daughters who preferred the Marquise as his official mistress to anyone else, wanted their harmonious ménage disrupted by some arrogant aristocrat or pushy parvenue whose abuse of patronage and mindless extravagance would cause national scandal. Flash-forward to the sad years after La Pompadour’s death, and cue slutty Madame du Barry moving in to Versailles.

Continue reading